Some months ago I wrote to you because of my concern that Greenpeace policy, with respect to kangaroo management and soil conservation, is to some extent, misguided and counter-productive. I had all but given up hope of receiving a reply and was beginning to conclude that constructive criticism was not welcome from rank and file supporters. However, last week I did receive a reply, on your behalf, from an individual called Powell Strong.
I had been hoping for a closely reasoned justification of Greenpeace policy which would either convince me that my concerns were unfounded or, at the very least, allow me to give the current policy makers the benefit of the doubt. Instead, I found myself wading through a morass of fatuous, patronising drivel. I am not sure what to conclude from it all. Does this letter accurately reflect the attitudes and abilities of Greenpeace? Or was Mr/Ms. Strong simply conveying his/her own quaint perceptions of life the universe and everything? In either case, I feel compelled to address the more obvious deficiencies in the argument against kangaroo farming. Personally, I am not convinced by arguments for or against roo farming. However, the more Greenpeace literature I read, the more I lean towards the arguments in favour.
My purpose in pursuing this matter is that I do not think it a bad thing that organizations such as Greenpeace should be asked to justify their policies to the people who ultimately pay the bills. My personal input to such groups is largely restricted to financial support as, living in the country, I find it difficult to justify the fuel consumed to attend endless committee meetings.
And so, to Mr/Ms. Strong’s letter. The opening paragraph was innocuous enough — simply a statement of Greenpeace concerns re. land degradation. However, the remainder of this treatise was at best trite, at worst apocryphal. For example, the statement, “Increasing the economic value of (a) species, historically, has not, to my knowledge, protected or preserved that species.” Considering that the context of the discussion was animal husbandry, rather than hunting and gathering, this seems a rather extraordinary assertion. For Ms/Mr Strong’s edification, let me list the following:- sheep, cattle of various persuasions, pigs, goats, deer, geese, ducks, pigeons, chickens, turkeys, ostrich, lamas, carp, tilapia, catfish, trout, silkworms, earthworms, leaches, white mice, and even of late, the humble yabby; to mention but a few of the species, the survival of which has been virtually guarantied for as long as homosapiens aspires to feed and clothe his/herself with the bodies of his/her fellow creatures. The often catastrophic damage wreaked upon other, less favoured species, in the process of husbanding the select few, is another matter of course.
As P.S. develops his/her argument, it seems that two quite distinct, although related issues get confused. First, it is acknowledged that hard hoofed animals are “enormously destructive” and then it is stated that land degradation in semi-arid areas is the result of land mismanagement by graziers. Whilst both these assertions are undoubtedly correct, they are distinctly separate issues. The solution to land degradation as suggested by P.S. is to stop grazing in semi-arid areas and fill in the water holes. In other words create vast conservation parks. Great idea, the more the better. However, given that approximately 90% of Australia’s pastoral land lies beyond Goyder’s line and is therefore classed as semi-arid, I am not convinced of the reality of such a solution. Currently the total area of land set aside for national parks is about 30 million hectares, as compared with almost 450 million hectares used for grazing. Is Green Peace seriously attempting to increase the area of national parks by some 1500%? Even though someone of such unimpeachable integrity as Senator Richardson has talked of removing “certain areas” from pastoral activity, the national park solution is obviously utopian.
If it is accepted that the vast majority of semi-arid Australia will not become national park in the foreseeable future and, if we are serious about reducing land degradation, then surely a compromise position is the most realistic alternative. If it is also acknowledged that hard hoofed animals are destructive in the extreme, then surely it makes sense to encourage a viable economic alternative based on native animals. P.S. argues, illogically, that this is not acceptable, because greedy graziers would still overstock. But surely, that is a different issue. If they are going to overstock the land, it is still better for it to be overstocked by native animals than by sheep and cattle. Also, I suspect that politically, it is much more realistic to attempt to impose some sort of land management control over graziers, than to compulsorily acquire about half the total land area of the country for the purpose of taking it out of production completely.
It is at this point that P.S.’s earlier assertion that increasing the economic value of a species has never protected or preserved that species, rears its ugly head. It is obviously completely inconsistent with the assertion that farming kangaroos would inevitably lead to unnaturally high populations of that species: i.e. overstocking.
P.S. would have done better to simply send me a copy of the article in vol.13 no5 of the” Greenpeace” magazine which contained some far more cogent, but by no means decisive arguments against roo farming; (although at the time of course, they were called “facts”). However, for the most part the assertions in the article were as logically incomprehensible as P.S.’s letter. For example: “No one can claim such a scheme [ie roo farming]….will not jeopardise the long-term survival of the species in the wild. In fact, as the meat will have to increase in price by 4-6 times to compete with sheep/cattle prices, poaching, over-shooting and illegal shooting will be more than likely to increase.” This statement is not a fact, it is an assertion, illogically based on a “fact” which happens to be wrong. I know it is wrong because our local butcher sells kangaroo meat for about 75% of the price of first quality beef. The assertion is illogical because, if it were so, then poaching and illegal shooting would have eliminated sheep and cattle long ago. On the contrary, if the status of kangaroos was clearly defined as being the property of the landowner, it is at least arguable that the general public would be less likely to regard the animals as public property, as is the case at the moment, and the landowner would have more incentive to husband a valuable resource.
The article then states another “fact” by asking whether the tax-payer “…will again be subsidising a private enterprise?…” by way of regulating the pastoral activities of kangaroo farmers. I would have thought that all private enterprise that was connected in any way with the use of public resources was subsidised by the tax-payer. Greenpeace, or at least P.S., is advocating the conversion of almost 50% of the land area of Australia into national park, presumably with fair compensation to anyone with a proprietary interest in such land, as is guarantied under the C/w Constitution. Such parks will presumably require adequate management by government agencies. How much will that cost the tax-payer?
Kangaroo meat has the same, if not more economic potential than venison and if that potential were allowed to develop, it could be the most powerful impetus for changing the currently insane land use practices in Australia’s arid and semi-arid pastoral areas.
That Greenpeace chooses instead to actively sabotage this potential, by way of an hysterical and emotive campaign, based on half truths and doubtful logic, (thereby helping to maintain the level of environmental debate at its current appalling standard), greatly disappoints me, and I am forced to speculate on whether there are other less apparent agendas behind such policies.
Quite apart from the substantive issues contained in P.S’s letter there are a number of questions that, I suppose, may best be described as attitudinal, and which I feel compelled to address. I am aware that at this point I may be doing P.S. an injustice, by ascribing attitudes from a reading between the lines of a hastily written letter. If so, I apologise in advance. However, the observations which follow are, I think, of general application to the environmental debate.
I am often asked what the farming community thinks about various environmental issues, to which I can only reply that, with some exceptions, it is impossible to generalize, as the range of opinion is as wide as it is in the urban areas. Not exactly an inspired answer, but a very instructive question; because it demonstrates a mistaken and rather one dimensional view of the rural community. The image of the redneck farmer, hell-bent on butchering the environment for the sake of greed or some perverse pleasure, is about as accurate as the reverse image of the environmental movement consisting of a mob of long-haired, bleeding heart dole bludgers and communists from the city, intent only on destroying civilization as we know it. Such divisive mythology is, I feel, a real problem in improving the current poor quality of debate about environmental issues. Furthermore, it obscures from both sides, the otherwise obvious fact that farmers and environmentalists are natural allies. One of the most heartening events in recent environmental history was the (admittedly largely symbolic) alliance between Rick Farley and Phillip Toyne. It is my fervent hope that the potential goodwill promised by this recognition of common interests, is not squandered on emotional confrontations over matters that are peripheral to the central issues of the environmental debate.
It is apparent from P.S.’s letter that graziers are seen as the enemy in the battle to reverse the trend towards ever worsening land degradation. Of course, it is true that past and present management practices are the immediate symptom of the disease, but if we are serious about rectifying the problem we must look a little deeper and attempt to see it in a broader perspective.
The vast majority of farming properties in Australia are still family owned concerns and as such may be distinguished from corporate owned enterprises, which are controlled by boards of directors, who have only one legally defined duty: to maximize profits for their shareholders. Family farms are usually run on a very different value system that has little to do with venality. Considering that if a farming family can make 4 to 5% return on capital investment, after throwing in the labour of a seven day week, it can consider the venture to be successful, then greed is unlikely to be the motivation behind the enterprise. More likely, it will be the result of a bond with the land as strong as with any peasant farmer anywhere in the world.
Although farmers seem to be intensely conservative and slow to accept changing values and ideas, often this is because they have been burned before, by new government policies, new crop varieties, new chemicals etc. etc. which they are encouraged or even compelled to adopt only to be vilified at some later date for doing so. A prime example of this is the fact that many soldier-settler properties were leased to farmers on the condition that they be cleared. If this obligation was not met, the farmer was legally liable. More recently, farmers have been pushed and pushed by governments to become ever more “efficient” which, they were told, meant becoming bigger. Banks encouraged expansion and threw money at farmers to do so, in exactly the same way as they did with Third World governments, and with exactly the same results. The difference is that often the same people who see these poor countries as victims, see our own farmers as villains. The poverty may be relative, but the mechanism is the same and as often as not, that makes Australian farmers as much the victims as the land they abuse. So, if the farmers and the land are the losers to our economic system, are there any winners? The answer to that is easy: the 16 million Australians who pay absurdly low prices for the food they consume, indeed, for everything they consume.
Over the past twenty years the price of basic food commodities has increased by an approximate factor of 7 and average individual incomes have increased by about 7.4; (although because of the dramatic increase in two income families, average family incomes have increased much more in real terms). Despite this, the value of primary produce at the farm gate in many cases remains much the same in dollar terms as it did twenty or even thirty years ago. For example: in the mid 1950’s a kilo of wool was worth about $4.00. Today it is worth between $5 & $6.00 per kilo. In other words, farmers receive, in real terms, only a tiny fraction of what they did a couple decades ago for their produce. So, how come they aren’t all broke? Answer: although farm incomes have steadily declined, it is also true that farmers have become more and more “efficient” at producing their products. Unfortunately it is many of these efficient techniques, which are causing the environmental damage. In other cases it is desperation farming, the only alternative to bankruptcy, which is turning farms into dust-bowls.
And so, one reason why farmers are wary of “greenies”, is that they know better than most what environmentalism really means. They know that it means paying much much much more for everything; but at the same time they are the people confronted most directly with the tangible results of our collective greed and stupidity. It is they who will be the ones who will bear the brunt of attempting to rectify the problems. Furthermore, once they are engaged on that task they will not, I suspect, be as fickle as a large percentage of the urban based environmental movement will be, once the penny drops that conservation is very expensive. It is easy being green when someone else is footing the bill.
What all this is getting around to is an attempt to convey my belief that whilst Greenpeace generally does a valuable job of keeping environmental matters prominently in the public view, through its emotive and populist methods, there is a down side to its activities. That is, the promotion of the perception that environmental issues happen somewhere else and are someone else’s fault; or, put another way, that environmental vandalism is in some way anomalous or at least peripheral to our society, rather than intrinsic to its definition. Until this reality is firmly etched into our collective psyche, attempting the fundamental economic and social restructuring necessary for our continued survival has no hope of success in anything resembling a democratic society.
Ultimately, I am sure that Greenpeace will achieve more by being less simplistic and emotional in its propaganda and less smug in its assumptions of moral superiority.
I hope that this letter is constructive and that poor old P.S. is not too offended by my perhaps over enthusiastic style of debate. I trust that we are, ultimately, on the same side in the battles to come.
With kind regards,